Confucius and Socrates Contents
BECK index

The Socratic Problem

by Sanderson Beck


This chapter has been published in the book CONFUCIUS AND SOCRATES Teaching Wisdom. For ordering information, please click here.

In studying Socrates as an educator, we must first come to grips with the sources of our information about Socrates and their methodological complexities, which are known as the "Socratic problem." Because we have no writing whatsoever by Socrates himself, we must rely on the extant literature of other people who wrote about him. The problem is to differentiate the views of Socrates from those of the authors who describe him and his teachings. This was a problem even during the classical period, and in the last century or two modern scholars have been debating the issues in numerous books and papers. In spite of careful scholarship and reasoned arguments, many of the issues still lack consensus and are controversial.

The four major sources (Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, and Aristophanes) have each had their champions.1 In the classical world the influence of the Academy and the Platonists gave most prominence to the writings of Plato, who founded the Academy which lasted from the fourth century BC until the submersion of the classical culture in the sixth century CE. After the re-discovery of classical literature in the Renaissance, for a long time Xenophon was generally held to be the most authentic to the real Socrates. Then in the early nineteenth century Schleiermacher pointed out that Xenophon was not enough of a philosopher to understand the depth of a man like Socrates who had had such great influence on the intellectuals of his time; therefore he argued that those parts of Plato which do not contradict Xenophon should be accepted.2 For a while Aristotle's word became authoritative to many as that of an objective observer without a special case to plead.

Early in this century the Scottish school represented by J. Burnet and A. E. Taylor threw out Aristotle's testimony and declared that only Plato could really understand and describe Socrates adequately.3 Taylor argued that Plato's presentation of Socrates must have been historically accurate because he would not try to perpetrate a deliberate mystification which would certainly be detected by eyewitnesses present at the occasions described, such as the day of Socrates' death.4 However, the Scottish school has failed to convince many modern scholars. The most common view now may be represented by Gregory Vlastos, who has edited a collection of essays by various people on the philosophy of Socrates; he limited the Socrates of this book to "the Socrates of Plato's early dialogs."5 The unique significance of Aristophanes' writing is that it is the only extant work describing Socrates that is known to have been written while Socrates was still alive. Fragments of dialogs by Aeschines and casual references by Isocrates are of limited value. Later sources, such as Cicero, Plutarch, Diogenes Laertius, and Athenaeus have been rejected by most scholars as being second-hand or third-hand information subject to rumors and legends.

In presenting this comprehensive study of Socrates, my responsibility is to explain my use of these various sources and to give reasons why I have taken the positions I have on these controversial issues. Although I cannot respond to every argument that has been made by scholars on the Socratic problem, I will discuss some of the principal points that have been presented in recent literature. This will be done with each source in turn. Generally my approach is to consider each source on its own merits rather than completely disregard some of the materials because I happen to disagree with them or mistrust them, which is what many scholars seem to me to do. The purpose in this introduction, then, is to clarify the probable authenticity of each source so that when they are quoted or utilized in the main text, the readers will be able to make their own evaluation of the importance of that material.

Socrates was certainly a man of great complexity who apparently taught and discussed many issues for several hours almost every day for a period of at least twenty-five years and perhaps for forty or more. Because he claimed little or no doctrine of his own but rather attempted to elicit the truth from others by his questioning, it is likely that he discussed many different subjects with different people; these people in searching their own minds and value systems may indeed have taken away widely different philosophies from their encounter with him. In fact we know that just about every major school of Greek philosophy with the exception of Aristotelianism, which was derived from Plato by Aristotle's genius, has been traced to listeners of Socrates - Plato's idealism, Xenophon's middle-class morality, Antisthenes' asceticism which was considered the origin of the Cynics and later the Stoics, Aristippus' philosophy of pleasure known as the Cyrenaics which was followed by Epicureanism, Euclides' Eristics and Dialecticians called Megarians, some Pythagoreans, and Aeschines who was considered by some to be the closest to Socrates' own views.

This helps to explain why various authors present such a different Socrates. Thus it seems to me that Socrates may have been rather broad and complex in his views and interests depending upon with whom he was talking, especially because he was not so much expounding his own views as questioning those of others. Could not the Socratic method have been used to help each of these different people to clarify the ideas of their own personal philosophies? To apply the Socratic method to this work, would it not perhaps be best to raise all of these questions, attempt to clarify them as best we can, and then let the readers decide their own ultimate conclusions? Even though some of the anecdotes and ideas presented as those of Socrates may have been rumors or legends, still they may represent part of the spirit of Socrates as history has passed it on to us. Because scholarship is not able to present a well-documented and undoubtedly accurate biography of Socrates, we must take our chances in sorting through the various materials at the risk of finding ourselves with a literary character. Nevertheless we can learn from literature, just as we can learn from history and biography. History has given us this combination, and we must sort it out as best we can. In looking at all the relevant materials here, the assumption is that more information is better, even though we need to accept it conditionally with the understanding that it may not be historically exact.


In 423 BC, when Socrates was 46 years old, a comedy called The Clouds by Aristophanes was produced in Athens. This play was awarded the third prize out of three plays in the competition that year. From a few fragments of the second-place play Connus by Ameipsias, we know that Socrates was a character in that play also. Aristophanes revised The Clouds sometime between 421 and 418.6 The revised version was not staged and probably not completed, but it is the revised version that is extant. Probably the most prominent scholar on the relation between this play and the historical Socrates is Kenneth J. Dover. I generally agree with the overall conclusions he drew in his essay, "Socrates in The Clouds,"7 but I differ with him on some of his specific points. In this burlesque satire he found three main areas of differences between Aristophanes' comic character and the portraits found in Plato and Xenophon:

1) In both Plato and Xenophon Socrates denied being interested in astronomy and geology, whereas Aristophanes presented him as a meteorologist;
2) Plato and Xenophon presented Socrates as a pious man who had faith in the gods and divine providence, but the comic Socrates denied the existence of Zeus and tried to explain his rain, thunder, and lightning as caused by the clouds;
3) Both Plato and Xenophon portrayed Socrates' antipathy toward rhetoric and the sophists' attempts to teach people how to exploit others by means of false arguments, but Aristophanes contradicted them by presenting Socrates as not only accepting money to teach people the "wrong logic," but he even gave him a formal school.

To account for these major differences, Dover considered three possible explanations. The first possibility is that Aristophanes was accurately describing Socrates as he knew him and that Plato and Xenophon wrote fictions based on their own ideas. This is amply refuted by testimonies found in other writers. A second hypothesis is that the portrait by Aristophanes depicted how Socrates was twenty years before Plato and Xenophon knew him near the end of his life. Although Socrates did say in Plato's Phaedo (96 ff.) that he became interested in philosophy through a book by Anaxagoras on the causes of things, he also stated there that he was disappointed to find that he suggested other causes for phenomena other than the mind. Both Plato and Xenophon made clear that Socrates was not interested in physical explanations nor did he teach rhetoric professionally at any time in his life; thus both they and Aristophanes cannot be correct. The third possibility, which I agree with Dover is the most reasonable, "is that Plato and Xenophon tell the truth; Aristophanes attaches to Socrates the characteristics which belonged to the sophists in general but did not belong to Socrates."8 In fact Plato had Socrates argue this in his defense at the trial, that "they repeat the accusations which are so readily made against all philosophers, 'what is up in the sky and what is below the earth' and 'not believing in gods' and 'making wrong appear right.'"9 Socrates even mentioned three times in this speech that the comic play by Aristophanes made a significant contribution to these misconceptions.10

Thus it would be unreasonable for us to assume that such a farcical burlesque was meant to be historically accurate. However, I would differ with Dover's suggestion11 that Aristophanes did not know the difference. According to Plato's Symposium Socrates and Aristophanes were well acquainted as friends. Secondly, as a writer of comedy he was looking to create a play that would be as funny as possible and might use one particularly funny and well-known character, Socrates, to stand for all the different types of philosophers he wanted to lampoon, probably knowing that Socrates would take it with good humor. In these plays all the individual parts were played by only three or four actors, and therefore it would be more economical to combine various traits of physicists, schools with initiations, and sophists who taught rhetoric together with Socrates and his humorous method of questioning toward befuddlement. With his unique appearance which was described as like a satyr, Socrates was a natural subject to pick for the satire. Thus using Plato and Xenophon it is fairly easy for us to discriminate the real Socrates from the caricature which includes these other elements.

However, those elements that appear in Aristophanes' play which are similar to the portraits of Plato and Xenophon are extremely important for confirming not only that they were characteristic of the real Socrates (rather than inventions of Plato or Xenophon) but also that they were known by Athenians at least twenty years before his death. One of these occurs in line 137 of The Clouds when a student makes a joke that Strepsiades' loud knocking on the door has "caused the miscarriage of a discovery." The word exemblokas may also be translated as "abortion." In Plato's Theaetetus Socrates described himself as a midwife who helps others give birth to ideas. In that passage Socrates used the same word to describe those who leave his company and on account of their bad companionship have miscarried (exemblosan).12 Dover attempted to explain away this obvious evidence with the following reasoning:

1) He doubted that Aristophanes would be that familiar with Socratic terminology.
2) He expected that if there is one such allusion, there should be others.
3) He wondered why this concept never appeared in Plato except in one late dialog.

Therefore he argued that the use of this term was probably just coincidental to common Greek usage of the word for giving birth and because the character Strepsiades being familiar with sheep and goats might naturally think of a fright causing a problem for these creatures who are so sensitive when pregnant.13 I find none of these arguments convincing. First of all, the fact of the term being used to describe the abortion of an idea is not just the chance occurrence of the idea of an abortion, but it is directly related to a discovery or idea. As for this being the only use of Socratic terminology, there are other examples which we shall explore. Just because this concept appears very clearly and extensively in one Platonic dialog, Dover expected it must therefore be explicitly mentioned in others. Why should it? Nevertheless the process of midwifery that is described can clearly be seen in many of the dialogs of all periods. The argument that the term abortion should crop up in the mind of Strepsiades because of his country background is completely erroneous, because the first character to mention the abortion of an idea is the student, not Strepsiades. Furthermore there is a positive reason why we should take this as a knowing reference to Socrates as a midwife of ideas. The "abortion of a discovery" is the punch-line of a joke, which would not be funny unless the audience understood the reference. Without the reference it is just an ugly metaphor which makes little or no sense. However, we can easily imagine some, if not many in the audience, thinking to themselves about Socrates' midwifery and smiling if not guffawing out loud. I consider this point extremely important, because it is concrete evidence that the Socrates portrayed by Plato as late as in the Theaetetus, which is considered a late dialog, may in fact be true to the real Socrates.

A second use of Socratic terminology occurs in line 742 when Socrates said, "Make sure you draw the correct distinctions." Dover's only argument against accepting this reference is that the term was used twice before in classical literature.14 Dover also referred to the point of the Scholion on Clouds that Socrates advised Strepsiades to give up the line of inquiry which has reached an impasse and make a fresh start. This he rationalized as the common practice of any active intellect.15 Dover's arguments on these points and the obvious buffoonery of the Socratic method of questioning in The Clouds are not unreasonable but are hardly sufficient to persuade us these are not evidence of similar methods used by Socrates in the Platonic dialogs.


Xenophon was born about 431 BC, three years before Plato, and like Plato he lived to be approximately eighty years old. He is best known as a Greek historian and is usually ranked as one of the best behind Herodotus and Thucydides. His most famous work, Anabasis, is an autobiographical account of the Persian expedition of 400 BC which kept him away from Socrates' trial. His Hellenica is a history of Greece from 411 to 362 BC. He also wrote on horsemanship, cavalry, hunting, the Spartan constitution, and a biography of Agesilaus. His Cyropaedia is an historical novel about Cyrus the Great which primarily discusses ideal education.

Xenophon wrote four dialogs about Socrates, although the one called Memoirs of Socrates seems to be three works strung together under one title. The Defense of Socrates is an account of Socrates' defense at his trial; the Symposium describes a dinner party; and the Oeconomicus is a treatise in dialog form on estate management. Although Xenophon has lost favor in modern times, according to G. C. Field, "Modern critics have not succeeded in convicting him of any serious sins of commission or positive misstatements of facts."16 On the one hand, Xenophon's credibility as a careful historian and biographer ought to lead us to take his accounts of Socrates seriously; on the other, his fictional treatment of Cyrus' education makes us aware that he could express his own ideas through an historical personage. I must agree with Field that in the case of Xenophon's Socratic writings many scholars seem to have "lost all sense of evidence" and let their prejudices get in the way.17

Field argued that Xenophon did not present the Memoirs of Socrates and the Defense of Socrates as dramatic dialogs as with the dialogs of Plato and Aeschines but as answers to charges made against an actual historical person. Field wrote, "As such, it would have no point unless it was true to the facts. It is presented to us as history."18 Field argued that the similarities between Xenophon and Plato do not necessarily mean that Xenophon copied these things from Plato's works but could easily mean that they observed the same things in Socrates himself. To those who have argued that Xenophon did not intend these works as history or, if he did, that they are unreliable, Field defended their historical reliability with the context that they were answering serious criminal charges and by comparing them to the Hellenica and Agesilaus where conversations are often recorded from other sources and are intended to be historical even though they are obviously not verbatim transcripts.19

To the common argument that the quality of Xenophon's philosophy is inferior to Plato's, Field remarked that this is a dangerous intrusion of one's values into scholarly questions of accuracy. Field concluded that the dialogs which were intended to defend Socrates were meant to be historical and therefore are likely to be accurate as far as they go, though there may be some specific misunderstandings and omissions.20 However, he considered the Oikonomikos to be Xenophon's own ideas on estate management in a fictional Socratic dialog and the Symposium a dramatic dialog which may have elements of truth mixed into an entertaining format.21 Thus we ought to take the descriptions of Socrates in Xenophon's Defense of Socrates and Memoirs of Socrates very seriously even though Xenophon himself might not have understood and presented all of Socrates' depth and complexity.

W. K. C. Guthrie argued similarly that Socrates may have possessed the irony and profundity presented by Plato as well as the "prosaic commonsense of Xenophon."22 Guthrie found many truly Socratic elements even in Xenophon's Oikonomikos. If Socrates used to question so avidly manual workers of every sort as well as poets and politicians, Guthrie asked why he would not want to question farmers and estate owners? The dialog also illustrates the educational value of the Socratic method of asking questions in order to awaken positive knowledge and clearly implies the Socratic (Some say Platonic.) doctrine that learning is recollection. Guthrie even found the Socratic irony that Xenophon is usually not credited with understanding when Socrates says that he is ignorant not only of farming and management but even this method of questioning in which he was clearly the master.23 Guthrie also found in Xenophon's Symposium many genuine Socratic traits---his mock modesty, his bodily discipline, his penchant for the question-and-answer method, his concept of beauty as utility and functional fitness, and his praise of love.24 Thus even these two dramatic dialogs may give us valid information about Socrates and his educational methods.

In an essay, "A Reappraisal of Xenophon's Apology," Luis A. Navia gave a detailed analysis of that short work and concluded that although it differs from Plato's account significantly, it does not have to be viewed as contradictory but can be "an important and revealing complementary piece of testimony on Socrates' trial."25 In regard to Socrates' less noble attitude toward death as saving him from the decrepitude of old age, he pointed to the Cynics and Cyrenaics who took this view and even went as far as justifying and using suicide as a valid alternative to old age.26 Since these schools were founded by Socrates' disciples Antisthenes and Aristippus respectively, there is reason to believe that Socrates could have made the statements attributed to him by Xenophon even if this was not the only motive for his actions at the trial. Even in Plato's Defense of Socrates before arguing that death may be better than life, Socrates stated, "I am far advanced in years, as you may perceive, and not far from death."27 Plato, being an idealist and wanting to present his teacher in a noble light may easily have edited out of his work an offhand comment by Socrates that maybe it would be better for him to die than to become debilitated by old age.

However, A. R. Lacey argued against this because of the appeal to Socrates' family responsibility made in the Crito.28 Yet because Xenophon cited Hermogenes as his eye-witness source at the beginning of the Defense of Socrates and in the Memoirs of Socrates and never cited a source elsewhere, he takes these works as more than just a literary genre but with historical intention.29 Actually Xenophon did cite himself as a witness to a conversation between Socrates and Euthydemus in Memoirs of Socrates IV, iii. Lacey considered the Symposium of Xenophon as well as the one by Plato as not historical events but literary devices. Xenophon's opening sentence that he wanted to portray Socrates at work as well as at play implied that it was probably written after at least parts of the Memoirs of Socrates. Lacey agreed with Ollier "that Xenophon was trying to portray a Socrates altogether more human and plausible than Plato's," and he did not regard the Symposium as "just a pale and uninspired copy of Plato's."30

Lacey went along with the general agreement that the Oikonomikos is unhistorical, arguing that Socrates was a townsman, whereas Xenophon did run a farm during his exile at Scillus.31 However, Xenophon did not portray Socrates as running a farm himself but as having commonsense knowledge about management and a knowledge of various people who are experts in their fields and can provide education in those areas for his friends. At one point in the dialog Socrates compared the total amount of his property to that of Critobulus who had more than a hundred times the meager five-minae value of Socrates' total possessions.32 Socrates only considered himself wealthy, because he had no need of more money than he already possessed.

In the Memoirs of Socrates Lacey found Socrates using both the negative and positive dialectic of refuting what Euthydemus thought he knew before then employing the midwife approach of bringing forth knowledge from the one answering the questions. However, he noted that in comparison to Plato, Xenophon's description of Socrates is a rather dull didacticism.33 Although this may imply Xenophon's inferiority to Plato in philosophical expression, it does not refute the historical accuracy of the Socrates he presented. Although he accepted the early Plato as the main source, Lacey finally concluded that no source can be completely trusted nor ignored, but each must be evaluated on its own merits.34

Gregory Vlastos in accepting only the early Plato considered Xenophon the only serious alternative and gave his main reasons for rejecting him.35 He declared that Xenophon's Socrates has neither irony nor paradox and that without these Plato's Socrates would be nothing. We have seen above that other scholars have found references to Socratic irony in Xenophon. In the Memoirs of Socrates Charicles accused Socrates of being in the habit of asking questions to which he knows the answers.36 In the fourth book of the same work the sophist Hippias accuses Socrates of the same ironical attitude, saying to him, "You mock at others, questioning and examining everybody, and never willing to render an account yourself or to state an opinion about anything."37 Nevertheless it is true that in portraying Socrates Xenophon rarely showed Socrates using this irony, while Plato seemed to delight in this ironical humor. Since the evidence is clear that Xenophon was aware of Socrates' irony, it seems to me that he deliberately chose not to emphasize it in his testimonies of Socrates, perhaps because it was with this irony that Socrates made so many enemies. Xenophon's stated intention was to defend Socrates and to show how he helped people. Plato, on the other hand, found the Socratic irony particularly suited to his dramatic interests and philosophical pursuits.

Next Vlastos argued that Xenophon's Socrates was very persuasive and gained more assent than anyone else, while Plato's Socrates had to struggle each step of the way. Again this difference may be because of the difference in their philosophical styles. Xenophon in his simplicity made everything seem clear-cut, while Plato intellectually perceived many subtle problems without easy answers. Yet who can deny that the Socrates in Plato's works is not extremely skilled in argument and in gaining assent even in very challenging discussions? And is this not the same ability that Xenophon was praising, even if he did not have the skill to portray it with such nuances?

Vlastos contrasted Xenophon's Socratic discussions on theology and theodicy and a "divine mind that has created man and ordered the world for his benefit" with Plato's refusal to argue about anything except human affairs. Even in Plato's Defense of Socrates , which is certainly an early dialog, Socrates discussed at length his divine mission and service of God as well as expressing trust in the providence of God in regard to the outcome of his trial. At the end of the Crito Socrates suggested that the results of the argument must be accepted, because that is the way God led. Also if we are to believe the autobiographical statements in the Phaedo, Socrates rejected the scientific causality of Anaxagoras because he believed that everything is the way it is because it is best for them to be that way. Although Plato had Socrates refer to "the good" instead of to God, the concept of his faith was similar to the theodicy presented in Xenophon. Surely the Socrates of both Plato and Xenophon was religious and mystical as well as humanistic. Xenophon himself contradicted the contrast that Vlastos tried to draw when he wrote, "His own conversation was ever of human things."38

Vlastos argued that Plato's Socrates believed that it is wrong to return evil for evil, whereas Xenophon's recommended injuring his enemies. The passage he cited from the Memoirs of Socrates was spoken by Socrates but about Critobulus and did not necessarily imply that Socrates believed that this was the best approach for himself, though he did presume that his friend would accept the traditional view. This is an important discrepancy between Plato and Xenophon, but I do not think it invalidates the whole work of Xenophon. I would intuit that Plato's Socrates is the true one in this case and that Xenophon as an experienced soldier perhaps censored either consciously or unconsciously this important Socratic tenet from his work. Even Plato described a militaristic state in his Republic, which I believe is also contrary to Socrates' own philosophy which did not prefer a luxurious and feverish state.39 Similarly Xenophon's Socrates stated that the virtuous "prize the untroubled security of moderate possessions above sovereignty won by war."40

Next Vlastos argued that Xenophon's account is not consistent with certain facts attested by both him and Plato and others. He claimed that Xenophon's Socrates could not have attracted sophisticated aristocrats like Critias and Alcibiades. Here Vlastos' prejudicial scorn of Xenophon seems to show through. Surely the Socrates portrayed by Xenophon was not as dull and boring as all that, as if Critias and Alcibiades were great intellectual geniuses! Xenophon actually described specifically the motives why Alcibiades and Critias chose to associate with Socrates in Memoirs of Socrates I, ii, 12-16. He stated that they did not want to learn moderation and simplicity, but because they were ambitious they wanted to learn proficiency in speech and action from a man who in argument "could do what he liked with any disputant." Xenophon pointed out how their motives were betrayed by their actions, "for as soon as they thought themselves superior to their fellow-disciples they sprang away from Socrates and took to politics."

Vlastos then argued that Xenophon's defense of Socrates was so apologetic throughout that it became an argument even against the reality of Socrates being brought to trial. This implies that just because Xenophon believed that Socrates did not deserve to be charged and convicted that he would not have been. Yet Plato also believed in Socrates' innocence. The fact remains that even though both Plato and Xenophon believed that Socrates was unjustly convicted, there were men in Athens at that time who were able to convince a jury to convict him. This is like arguing that the Jesus portrayed in the gospels could not be accurate, or he never would have been crucified. Just because Xenophon was trying to redeem the reputation of Socrates from the slanders and unjust charges that brought about his death does not mean that he was unaware of who Socrates was and how these enmities developed.

In conclusion, then, there does not seem to be any irrefutable arguments for not accepting the testimony of Xenophon on Socrates. In fact arguments for accepting his Defense of Socrates and Memoirs of Socrates as perhaps equal in historical value to any source we have about Socrates have been made. His Symposium is a literary dialog but remains as probably an accurate portrait of Socrates' humor, interests, and character in his lighter moments. The Oikonomikos does go afield of Socrates' usual interests, but nonetheless his character and methods still shine through. Although Xenophon may have missed and censored some of Socrates' more philosophical skills and interests, the wisdom and educational skill of Socrates is described for us at length in various situations and encounters that bring out his practical side and concern for individual counseling that is less often treated in the works of Plato. Thus if we want to understand the whole Socrates we must at least consider the relative merits of the evidence Xenophon gave us.


Probably the greatest and most difficult part of the Socratic problem concerns the works of Plato. The Socratic dialogs of Plato provide us with more material than all of the other ancient writings about Socrates combined. Also Plato's works are the most philosophical and brilliant of all the Socratic writings. Most would probably agree with Guthrie that "for the personal appearance, character and habits of Socrates we may go with confidence to both Plato and Xenophon, and we find indeed a general agreement in their accounts of these matters."41 The controversy centers on differentiating the ideas of two great philosophers, Socrates and Plato. Was Plato primarily a disciple writing about the great ideas of his teacher? Or was Plato an inventive and original philosopher who merely used Socrates as a character in his dialogs to express the writer's views? Or was he some combination of the two?

The writings of Aristophanes and Xenophon do not solve this problem because they are of limited philosophical value. Aside from an internal analysis of Plato's own works, our best evidence for solving this mystery is the vague testimony of Aristotle about Socrates' contributions to the history of philosophy. Although Aristotle was born sixteen years after Socrates' death, at the age of seventeen he went to Athens where he studied and taught in Plato's Academy for twenty years. Thus he was likely intimately knowledgeable of Plato's own philosophy and his accounts of Socrates because surely most of the teaching in those days was still direct and oral. Diogenes Laertius recounted that when Plato read aloud his long dialog On the Soul (Phaedo), Aristotle was the only one in the audience who stayed to the end.

Aristotle described Socrates as being concerned with the virtues of character and stated that in that connection he was the first to inquire into universal definitions. He found it logical that Socrates would in this way seek the essence of what a thing is. In his Metaphysics (Book XIII, chapter iv, 1079) Aristotle wrote,

For two things may be fairly ascribed to Socrates -
inductive arguments and universal definition,
both of which are concerned with the starting point of science -
but Socrates did not make the universals
or the definitions exist apart;
they, however, gave them separate existence,
and this was the kind of thing they called Ideas.

Thus it is generally agreed that the search for definitions was Socratic. However, the ideas, or forms, remain problematic, because it does not say that Socrates did not introduce the concept of ideas but that he did not separate them, presumably from the objects to which they refer. Further on in the same work (1086) Aristotle repeated that Socrates "did not separate universals from individuals," and Aristotle stated that he was correct in not separating them. Thus Aristotle seemed to be rejecting the dualistic idealism of Plato for the integrated universalism of Socrates. The difficulty is interpreting what Aristotle meant by "separate." Many scholars have taken Socrates' discussions of the theory of ideas as Plato expressing his own views through Socrates' mouth. Nevertheless Aristotle's testimony is evidence that Socrates did use the concept of universal ideas.

With this in mind, let us now look at Plato's own works for their own internal evidence. A. E. Taylor used the knowledge that linguistic scholars have contributed as to the relative dating of Plato's various dialogs in order to argue that when Plato began to use more of his own ideas rather than those of Socrates in the later dialogs, he replaced Socrates as the main speaker with new characters such as the Eleatic Stranger in the Sophist and Politician, an Italian Pythagorean in the Timaeus, and an Athenian Stranger in the Laws.42 The earliest dialogs are now those that are most generally accepted as being true to the original Socrates. These are the Defense of Socrates , Crito, Euthyphro, Charmides, Laches, and Lysis, and some add the first book of The Republic. Yet R. E. Allen in his essay "Plato's Earlier Theory of Forms" found several passages in the Euthyphro and Laches that assume the "existence of Forms, as universals, standards, and essences."43 These earliest dialogs are dominated by elenchus, or cross-examination resulting in refutation. The next group of dialogs, chiefly being Protagoras, Meno, Euthydemus, and Gorgias, also use cross-examination but begin to result in some positive conclusions. This tendency continues and flourishes in the great dialogs of the middle period, Cratylus, Symposium, Phaedo, The Republic, and Phaedrus. Two transitional dialogs still use Socrates as a main character, Theaetetus and Parmenides, but in the latter Socrates is a very young man and therefore may be suspect, being so long before; perhaps this represents Plato's transition away from Socrates to his own ideas, but still not being quite ready to let go of his great main character. As mentioned already Socrates does not play an important role in most of the late dialogs with the exception of the Philebus. Yet here the discussion of pleasure from an ethical viewpoint falls right in line with the character and teachings of Socrates, and Plato used him again.

My view is that in his middle period Plato brought out the philosophy of the real Socrates with great skill and depth. The difference between Plato's early dialogs and middle period shows his own development as a writer and also contrasts how the earlier phases of philosophical education differ from the more advanced ones that come later. Before positive doctrines can be clearly elicited, one's false notions must be refuted. I believe that the differences between the philosophy of Plato and Socrates can be found by comparing the Plato's dialogs using Socrates as the main speaker with the later ones that use other speakers to express Plato's ideas. Some scholars seem to want to strip the mystical qualities from Socrates in order to reduce him to a skeptical rationalist; but I emphatically disagree with the limits of that approach. I believe the evidence in the early dialogs as well as in Plato's middle period indicates that Socrates believed deeply in God and even had a mystical and personal connection by means of a guiding spirit which he called his daimonion.

Thus my approach is to consider all the evidence about Socrates while keeping in mind what the sources are. Even the biography by Diogenes Laertius has useful information which may be valid even though some may consider much of it legendary. I choose to present it all and let the readers decide for themselves.


1. Guthrie, W. K. C. Socrates, p. 9.
2. Zeller, E. Socrates and the Socratic Schools, p. 83-84.
3. Jaeger, Werner, Paideia: the Ideals of Greek Culture, Vol. II, p. 25.
4. Taylor, A. E., Socrates, p. 31.
5. Vlastos, Gregory, The Philosophy of Socrates, p. 1.
6. Guthrie on p. 56 cited Merry, W. W. Aristophanes: The Clouds p. xi and Murray, G. Aristophanes p. 87.
7. Vlastos, The Philosophy of Socrates, p. 50-77.
8. Ibid. p. 68.
9. Plato Defense of Socrates 23.
10. Ibid. 18, 19, and 26.
11. Vlastos, p. 72.
12. Plato Theaetetus 150.
13. Vlastos, p. 61-62.
14. Ibid. p. 62.
15. Ibid. p. 62-63.
16, Field, G. C. Plato and His Contemporaries, p. 138.
17. Ibid. p. 140.
18. Ibid. p. 140.
19. Ibid. p. 142.
20. Ibid. p. 144.
21. Ibid. p. 138-139.
22. Guthrie, W. K. C. Socrates, p. 15.
23. Ibid. p. 16-17.
24. Ibid. p. 24.
25. Kelly, Eugene (ed.) New Essays on Socrates, p. 62.
26. Ibid. p. 60-61.
27. Plato Defense of Socrates 38.
28. Lacey, A. R. "Our Knowledge of Socrates" in Vlastos, p. 34.
29. Ibid. p. 35.
30. Ibid. p. 36-37.
31. Ibid. p. 34.
32. Xenophon Oeconomicus II, 3.
33. Vlastos, p. 40.
34. Ibid. p. 49.
35. Ibid. p. 1-3.
36. Xenophon Mem. I, ii, 36.
37. X. Mem. IV, iv, 9.
38. X. Mem. I, i, 16.
39. Plato Republic II, 372-373.
40. X. Mem. II, vi, 22.
41. Guthrie, p. 29.
42. Taylor, p. 26-28.
43. Vlastos, p. 328-329.

Copyright © 1996, 2006 by Sanderson Beck

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How Confucius Taught
What Confucius Taught
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Attitudes of Socrates
How Socrates Taught
What Socrates Taught
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